MARK KIESLING: Illinois prison release system deserves new look

2012-05-30T00:00:00Z MARK KIESLING: Illinois prison release system deserves new look nwitimes.com
May 30, 2012 12:00 am

There are too many people in prison.

I say that because some of them are there for low-level offenses, and they are taking up the three hots and a cot from more serious criminals.

Illinois is considering an early-release program that would let those low-level and well-behaved prisoners out of prison early to make room for the violent offenders who pose a real threat to the home and hearth.

It's either that or build more prisons. And with the state budget, that really is not a viable option.

Yeah, sure, it is a risk. A guy in for a minor theft might be released early and end up killing someone. But you don't lock up people because you think they might do something, even though there have been those proposals.

That kind of logic was used in Nazi Germany, where people who were judged to be potential criminals were locked up in concentration camps.

We need to stop incarcerating petty criminals. We need to monitor them, no doubt, but putting them behind bars takes up space that could be put to better use by locking up killers, rapists, robbers and their ilk.

I'm not the only one who thinks so. I am in pretty good company.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that California's correctional bottleneck was basically unconstitutional punishment.

In the wake of that decision, the state was ordered to cut 30,000 prisoners within two years.

Illinois House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, said if Illinois does not act and act fast, it could be headed for a California-type lawsuit that takes the power away from the state and hands it over to the federal government.

Right now, the Illinois prison system has 14,000 more prisoners than it was designed to take in.

The protection of society is paramount. Of course, I am not suggesting we let these guys skate. But there are alternative methods of punishment that do not require more prisons, more guards and more tax dollars, and which do not pose the threat of a lawsuit Illinois likely would lose.

And who pays for that? You do, all you residents of the Prairie State. Or is it the Land of Lincoln? I forget.

Regardless, there has for decades been a carrot-and-stick method of treating prisoners as early release was used as a reward for good behavior.

The new proposal, steered through the Senate by Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, would cover Gov. Pat Quinn from the criticism he received in 2009 for a disaster in the early-release program.

There are no guarantees. But we can have more than adequate hope that a revamped program would save tax money and keep people in prison who should be there and people out who should not.

The opinions are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at mark.kiesling@nwi.com or (219) 933-4170.

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